Nathu La And Cho La Clashes Of 1967: How The Indian Army Dealt With Chinese Trouble

by Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal - Jul 22, 2017 12:08 PM +05:30 IST
Nathu La And Cho La Clashes Of 1967: How The Indian Army Dealt With Chinese TroubleChinese soldiers guard the border on the Nathu La mountain pass connecting India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region during the Chola incident (or Sino-Indian skirmish), 3 October 1967. (Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Every battle has its share of heroism, faint-heartedness, drama and humour. The Nathu La skirmish of 1967 was no exception.

    Indians refused to blink, and the mighty Chinese dragon was made to look ordinary.

After the debacle of 1962, nothing could have enhanced the self-esteem of the Indian Army than the mauling that was given to the Chinese at Nathu La in Sikkim on 11 September 1967 and at Cho La on 1 October 1967.

It must have come as a rude shock to the Chinese Army and also its political leadership. And by a happy coincidence, the Army leadership, which got the better of this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, was the same that went on to create Bangladesh in 1971. Major General Sagat Singh was General Officer Commanding (GOC) 17 Mountain Division in Sikkim, Lieutenant General Jagjit Aurora was GOC 33 Corps and Sam Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander.

It was on 21 July 1967 that I reported to my unit, which was a mule pack artillery regiment in Sikkim, after finishing my young officers course. Those days young officers were made to have their professional mailing by sending them on long-range patrols for area familiarisation, making them take part in Khad race (typically running through a water stream/rivulet) to increase their stamina and sending them to remote observation posts on the Sikkim-Tibet border for a month.

Having done my share of long-range patrols (LPR) and taken part in the khad race, I was sent to oversee the Sabu La observation post on the Sikkim-Tibet border. This observation post was about a kilometre south-west of Nathu La. It dominates Nathu La by virtue of taking on higher ground and commands an excellent view of the pass, and is also to the Chinese defence on the feature known as the north shoulder. We were two outposts at Sabu La and had the good-old radio set 62 and PRC-10 and, of course, line communications to the guns deployed in the rear.

Nathu La, at 14,200 feet, is an important pass on the Tiber-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well-defined by the Anglo-Chinese convention of 17 March 1890, the Chinese did not like Sikkim being a protectorate of India at that time and Indian Army being deployed there. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese, in order to pressurise India, gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. For some strange reason, 27 Mountain Division, under whose jurisdiction Jelep La was at the time, vacated the pass which remains under Chinese possession till date.

However, Lt Gen Sagat Singh, true to form, refused to vacate Nathu La. Incidentally, it is at Nathu La where the Chinese and Indian forces are deployed barely 30 yards apart, closest anywhere on the 4,000km Sino-Indian border, and the border remains un-demarcated. The Chinese hold the northern shoulder of the pass while the Indian Army holds the southern shoulder. Two dominating features south and north of Nathu La, namely Sebu La and Camel’s back, were held by Indians. Artillery observation post officers deployed on these two features have an excellent observation into Chinese depth areas, whereas from the northern shoulder, the Chinese have very little observation into Indian depth areas.

This factor proved crucial in the clash that ensued. At the time of the clash, 2 Grenadiers were holding Nathu La. This battalion was being commanded by Lt Col (later, Brigadier) Rai Singh. The battalion was under the command of 112 Mountain Brigade, being commanded by Brigadier MMS Bakshi, MVC part of 17 Mountain Division.

The daily routine at Nathu La used to start with patrolling on both the sides of the perceived border, which almost always resulted in arguments. The only one on the Chinese side who could converse in (broken) English was the political commissar, who could be recognised by a red patch on his cap. Sentries of both the forces used to stand barely one metre apart at the centre of the pass, which is marked by Nehru Stone, commemorating Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s trek to Bhutan through Nathu La and Chumbi Valley in 1959.

An argument between the two sides soon changed to pushing and shoving, and on 6 September 1967, a scuffle took place in which the political commissar fell down and broke his spectacles. These incidents only added to the excitement. I developed an excellent rapport with Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and a few days before the clash, we had gone to Gangtok together on “liberty” to see a movie. Little did I know that within a week, Dagar would be a martyr.

In order to de-escalate the situation, it was decided by the Indian military hierarchy to lay a wire at the centre of the pass from Nathu La to Sebu La to demarcate the perceived border. This task was to be carried out by the jawans of 70 Field Company of Engineers assisted by a company of 18 Rajput deployed at Yak La pass further north of Nathu La. The laying of wire was to commence at first light on the fateful morning of 11 September 1967.

The morning of that day dawned with bright sunshine, unlike the regular foggy days. 70 Field Company Engineers assisted by jawans of the company of 18 Rajput started erecting long iron pickets from Nathu La to Sebu La along the perceived border while 2 Grenadiers and artillery observation post officers at Sebu La and Camel’s back were on alert.

Immediately thereafter, the Chinese political commissar, with a section of infantry, came to the centre of the pass where Lt Col Rai Singh, Commanding Officer 2 Grenadiers, was standing with his commando platoon. The commissar asked Lt Col Rai Singh to stop laying the wire. Orders to the Indian Army were clear. They were not to blink. An argument started which soon built up into a scuffle. In the ensuing melee, the commissar got roughed up. Thereafter, the Chinese went back up to their bunkers and engineers resumed laying the wire.

Within minutes, a whistle was heard on the Chinese side followed by murderous medium machine gunfire (MMG) from the northern shoulder. The pass was completely devoid of cover and the jawans of 70 Field Company and 18 Rajput were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties, which included Col Rai Singh, who was wounded. He was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) later. Two brave officers, Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput, rallied a few troops and tried to assault the Chinese MMG, but both died a heroic death. They were posthumously awarded Veer Chakra and MVC respectively.

2 Grenadiers opened small arms fire on the northern shoulder, but it was not very effective. Within the first ten minutes, there were nearly 70 dead and scores wounded, lying in the open on the pass. Within half an hour, the Chinese artillery opened up on the pass as well as in the depth areas, but it was mostly prophylactic fire due to lack of observation and failed to do much damage. Meanwhile, we as artillery observation post officers asked for artillery fire, permission for which came a little later. Because of excellent domination and observation from Sebu La and Camel’s back, artillery fire was most effective, and most of the Chinese bunkers on the northern shoulder and in depth areas were completely destroyed, and the Chinese suffered very heavy casualties which, by their own estimates, numbered over 400. The artillery dual thereafter carried on day and night for the next three days. The Chinese were taught a lesson.

On 14 September, the Chinese threatened use of air force if shelling did not stop. By then, the lesson had been driven home and an uneasy ceasefire came about as the Chinese, true to form, had pulled over dead bodies to their side of the perceived border at night and accused us of violating the border. Dead bodies were exchanged on 15 September, at which time Sam Aurora and Sagat were present at the pass.

Every battle has its share of heroism, faint-heartedness, drama and humour. The Nathu La skirmish was no exception. 2 Grenadiers were initially shaken up due to the loss of Capt Dagar and injury to their commanding officer, but found their man of the moment in Lieutenant Atar Singh, who went round from trench to trench to rally the troops and was later promoted as captain on the spot.

On the lighter side was one artillery observation post officer, my colleague, at Sebu La whose radio set was damaged due to shelling, and he was out of communication with his guns. He rightly decided to go back to the base at Sherathang in the depth to get another radio set. While he was on his way back, commander of the artillery brigade was coming up. He stopped the young captain, accused him of running away from the battle and sent him back after reducing him to his substantive rank of a second lieutenant.

Casualties could not be evacuated for three days and nights as any move to do so invited a hail of Chinese bullets. Some wounded may well have succumbed to cold and rain. There were awards for bravery as also court martial for cowardice. However, what stood out was the steadfastness of the commanders and bravery of the jawans and junior officers. Indians refused to blink, and the mighty Chinese dragon was made to look ordinary.

No wonder the Sino-Indian border has remained peaceful ever since, to the extent that today Chinese soldiers come and ask their Indian counterparts at Nathu La for cigarettes, rum and tea, mail is exchanged twice in a week in a hut constructed specially for this purpose, and border personnel meeting takes place there twice a year. It was my privilege to command the Nathu La brigade many years later and conduct the first border personnel meeting at Nathu La in 1995.

Postscript

The situation flared up again 20 days later when on 1 October 1967 a face-off between India and China took place at Cho La, another pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border a few kilometres north of Nathu La. Despite casualties early on, 7/11 GR and 10 JAK RIF stood firm and forced the Chinese to withdraw nearly three kilometres away to a feature named Kam Barracks, where they remain deployed till date. Cho La pass is firmly in Indian hands. The Indian Army had got better of the Chinese yet again.

This piece was first published on Indian Defence Review and has been republished here with permission.

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